Archive for the ‘  Caribbean Literature’ Category

I discovered Joanne C. Hillhouse’sMusical Youth‘ sometime back and read it yesterday.

The story told in ‘Musical Youth‘ happens in Antigua, one of my favourite places in the world. I’ll tell you why later 😊 Zahara is in high school. She loves playing the guitar. Her mom is no more, she doesn’t know her dad, and her grandma brings her up. Grandma is tough and strict. Zahara becomes friends with Shaka Zulu. Shaka is also in high school and he is an aspiring musician too. Shaka’s father is no more and he has been brought up by his grandpa and his mother. Soon Zahara’s and Shaka’s friendship becomes more than friendship. As the story moves forward, we learn more about these two young people’s families and friends, Zahara’s relationship with her grandmother, Shaka’s relationship with his grandfather and how his grandfather inducted him into music. We also learn how these two young people got into music, we learn about their mentors who inducted them into it and guided them, and how music plays an important part in their lives. We learn about their inspiring teachers Father Ellie, Diva, Mr.Perry. The conversation between Zahara and Father Ellie and Shaka and Diva and Shaka and Mr.Perry are some of the most beautiful parts of the book. Mr.Perry is an amazing teacher and inspiring figure and in one scene he kicks the asses of parents without worrying about the consequences and that scene gave me goosebumps. I wish I could quote the whole scene here, but it runs into multiple pages and so you should read the book to find out what happened. As an appetizer, I’ll quote a part of it here.

““These are your children. Do you think you can just hand them over to me and don’t look back?” Mr. Perry paced as he spoke. Shaka was familiar with this version of his English teacher; it was the version he and others in his class saw when they didn’t complete an assignment or work up to expectations. It was Mr. Perry’s “if you don’t do better, you’re letting yourselves down” voice. It was funny to see parents on the receiving end of it…Shaka watched, almost in awe, as Mr. Perry paused and looked down his nose at the parents like they disgusted him. The weird thing was they took it. The parents shifted uncomfortably in their seats but didn’t make a peep. Mr. Perry’s superpower, he’d discovered, was the ability to command an entire room of people even if it was a roomful of parents, parents who probably earned lots more than he did. He wasn’t exactly sure what a teacher’s salary was but he knew the Teachers Union was always in the news complaining about too-low wages, so it couldn’t be very much. He knew that all the kids in their theatre troupe didn’t come from the same world. Some of their worlds were within reach of each other sure, like his and Zahara’s, but others like Dan’s and Nicola’s might as well be as far away as the moon with their helpers and nannies and whatnot. But Mr. Perry wasn’t checking for any of that just now. He was letting the parents have it as though their deep pockets didn’t matter.”

If the book is just about teenagers at school making music and falling in love, this book would be a regular YA novel. An interesting one, but a regular one. What elevates it to a fascinating, important book are two things. One is the family secrets which come tumbling out of the closet and the surprises that are revealed. They are heartbreaking but also lead to beautiful things. The second thing is the book’s commentary on colourism seen through the lens of music. It is fascinating and insightful and makes us think.

I loved most of the characters in the book, especially Zahara’s grandma, Shaka’s grandpa and their musical mentors, and especially their teacher Mr.Perry. Mr.Perry was totally kick-ass!

I loved the way Joanne Hillhouse brings out the beautiful natural speech of Antigua on the page – we can feel the Antiguan / West Indian / Caribbean flair and style come alive on the page, while reading the conversations between the different characters.

I loved ‘Musical Youth‘. It is a beautiful love letter to music, to being young, to family, to falling in love, to inspiring teachers. It is about love, loss, unearthing family secrets and dealing with them positively, seeing the evils of racism and colourism and learning from them and becoming a wiser and a better person as a result. It is also a beautiful education in music, especially Caribbean music. Joanna Hillhouse has written other beautiful books and I can’t wait to read them now.

So, now more on one of my favourite places Antigua, as I promised earlier 😊 I’ve always had a soft corner for Antigua, because that is where my all-time favourite cricketer and my childhood sporting hero Viv Richards is from. Viv Richards was cool and stylish, was tall, dark and handsome, and according to me, was the greatest cricketer who ever walked on a cricket field (apologies to Sir Donald Bradman). We’ll never see the likes of him again. I’ve never read a book set in Viv’s home island of Antigua written by an Antiguan writer, and I was so happy when I discovered that ‘Musical Youth’ was set in Antigua. I was even more happy when I discovered that Joanne Hillhouse has sneaked in a Viv Richards reference into the book 😊 Thank you so much, Joanne 😊 Sharing below a couple of pictures of the great Viv Richards in his prime, looking cool and stylish and incredibly handsome. Every schoolboy wanted to be like him, including yours truly.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“Only on one occasion had Granny Linda gone too far. That was the time Zahara’d broken the silver necklace, the one Granny Linda had taken from her mother’s jewellery box saying that it perfectly complemented her white Confirmation dress. When Zahara broke it, Granny Linda had snapped. It was her worst beating in living memory. Granny Linda hadn’t beaten her since, as though her grandmother had been scared by how angry she’d been. Zahara had heard her grandmother crying that night, and that had made her more afraid than the beating. She associated her grandmother with solid things, things not even a hurricane could knock down, like a mountain. You could strip it clean but it would go on standing. She knew that Granny Linda considered tears a weakness. Zahara didn’t know how to make sense of a world in which Granny Linda was weak enough to cry. She pretended that whole memory away, the Holy Communion, the lost necklace, the beating, and the tears. She looked at her grandmother, solid in that moment, turning the cornmeal and avoiding her granddaughter’s eyes.”

Have you read ‘Musical Youth‘? What do you think about it?


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